Politics

The head of Oregon’s public defense system is fired, after months of tumult

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB) and Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Aug. 18, 2022 7:01 p.m. Updated: Aug. 18, 2022 11:27 p.m.

Steve Singer had led the Office of Public Defense Services since January. Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters wanted him out — and ensured that happened with a rejiggered commission.

Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, was fired on Aug. 18, 2022.

Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, was fired on Aug. 18, 2022.

Screen shot

Steve Singer survived the first attempt at his job. The state’s top public defender was not as fortunate the second time around.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

In a widely expected move, the commission overseeing Oregon’s flagging public defense system voted to fire Singer on Thursday, in a 6-2 vote with one member absent. Singer has led the Office of Public Defense Services for nearly eight months, winning fans among public defenders. But his confrontational style has grated on commissioners, employees and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.

The commission, which was reconstituted by Walters on Tuesday, did not take the act of firing Singer lightly. When the vote was initially called on Thursday, only four commissioners voted to fire Singer, one short of the required majority. But after more discussion two brand new commissioners, Jennifer Nash and Kristen Winemiller, agreed to fire him.

“Based on the information I’ve heard about how much damage it will cause the agency if we don’t move forward,” Nash said, “I’m going to vote to terminate Mr. Singer.”

“I agree,” Winemiller added. “That’s also my vote.”

That came after Singer mounted a vigorous defense, characterizing the push to remove him as a dictatorial move by Walters and the judiciary at large, and saying it would put a black mark on Oregon’s efforts to reform public defense.

“This is the most significant frontal attack on the independence of public defense ever in the United States,” Singer said as part of a lengthy address to the commission before the vote. “It is frightening. It is scary.”

Singer’s removal settles one issue that had provided distraction from the state’s mounting public defense crisis. But it creates new questions, such as who will take over the agency in his stead, and whether that person will prove more successful at navigating the three branches of government now intensely focused on the issue.

Commissioners said they would take up appointing an interim director as soon as next week, but for now left the agency in the hands of three staff members, including deputy director Brian DeForest, who clashed with Singer.

Hundreds of criminal defendants in Oregon are currently without lawyers, and the state faces a class-action lawsuit aimed at bringing it back in compliance with the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a right to an attorney for those charged with crimes.

Thursday’s action is the latest development in a dramatic series of events set into motion at a similar commission meeting last week.

At that Aug. 10 meeting, Walters and commission chair Per Ramfjord forcefully urged commission members to vote to fire Singer. They and other commissioners said the director had bullied subordinates, lashed out at Walters for no reason, offended lawmakers with rash statements and failed to craft a workable plan to dig Oregon out of its public defense crisis.

The fate of Oregon’s public defense reform, Singer’s detractors suggested, would be placed at risk if he were allowed to continue in his role.

“We’ve been a chaos of Mr. Singer’s making,” Walters told the commission at the meeting.

But while every member of the commission agreed on Aug. 10 that the first eight months of Singer’s tenure in Oregon had been rocky, they could not find agreement on what to do about it. The group deadlocked on votes to fire Singer or place him on leave, with some commission members voicing a belief in Singer’s vision and abilities even as they decried his conduct.

Oregon’s public defense system is unique nationally. Instead of being government employees, like prosecutors are, trial level public defenders in Oregon are contractors. Most work for private firms or nonprofits that contract with the state. The Office of Public Defense Services, which Singer has been in charge of for the past eight months, issues those contracts and handles appeals. The office is overseen by the Public Defense Services Commission. And that commission is entirely appointed by the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

With the commission unwilling to do Walters’ bidding, the chief justice pursued a new strategy.

Not long after the meeting, courts officials began contacting people around the state who might be willing to serve on the commission. On Monday, Walters took the unprecedented step of removing all nine members of the public defense commission, inviting anyone who wanted to stay on to reapply. By Tuesday, the chief justice had named a new commission, re-appointing five members and adding four brand new people.

Many of Singer’s strongest defenders on the commission either declined to apply or were not reappointed. At a hearing Wednesday, the new board talked openly of who might be Singer’s interim replacement if he was fired.

With Singer now gone, questions remain about how the state moves forward. Oregon is in the midst of an unprecedented and troubling public defense crisis, which now includes more than 700 defendants — some jailed — without access to attorneys.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

According to a study released in January, the state needs roughly 1,300 additional public defenders to meet its caseloads. And state officials, who have known for years that the threadbare system is likely unconstitutional, now face a class-action lawsuit over Oregon’s inability to provide indigent defense.

Complicating matters, public defenders around the state had warmed to Singer, and praised him for the urgency and vision he brought to the flailing agency. Many of those proponents pointed to the work he did in reshaping public defense in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“For the first time in my time in public defense … we have a director who seems to hear the voice of rural Oregon’s public defense community, understands their needs, and responds to those needs,” Erik Swallow, a defender in Roseburg, wrote in a letter to commissioners last week.

At the same time, many of the high ranking government officials who’ll have a central say in improving Oregon’s public defense system have appeared to support removing Singer.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, both backed Walters on Monday, when she fired the public defense commission.

“I’m not sure anyone saw this coming,” Courtney said at the time. “Things are a mess and they’ve got to get better. We’ve got to correct this thing.”

Many across Oregon’s indigent defense community say the chief justice’s decision to dismiss the commission en masse – presumably to get the votes necessary to fire Singer – sends a chilling message.

“We write today to express concern about the political independence of the public defense system and the peril of keeping it in the judicial branch,” the Public Defenders of Oregon, an organization made up of several nonprofits that contract to provide roughly 30% of the state’s public defense, wrote to legislative leaders.

The concerns over the chief justice’s actions to remove and replace the commission extend far beyond Oregon.

“I can’t think of another instance where an entire public defense board was removed in one fell swoop,” said Geoff Burkhart, president of the National Association for Public Defense, which wrote a letter Wednesday to Walters noting its concerns.

Burkhart said the primary national standard for public defense is independence and that it be allowed to operate without political or judicial interference. The underlying concern, Burkhart notes, is whether people charged with crimes who need a public defender get fair trial and not one influenced by a public defense system that’s enmeshed with the judiciary.

“We’re out to make sure people get a fair shake,” Burkhart said. “If you don’t have independence for the defense function that throws that all into question. Are they able to get a fair shake?”

A 2019 report commissioned by the Oregon Legislature found the state’s public defense system was effectively unconstitutional. Among other concerns, the report questioned the advisability of a Public Defense Services Commission solely appointed by the chief justice.

“A non-independent system cannot solve its own lack of independence,” said Jon Mosher, deputy director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, which authored the report. “The legislature and the executive branch have to join the judicial branch in oversight of OPDS and the way that happens.”

Despite those findings, Oregon lawmakers have not acted on them. Though, the Sixth Amendment Center has been involved as part of a legislative work group on public defense that was formed in April.

During Thursday’s meeting, at least one commissioner, Max Williams, expressed an openness to examining the structure in the future, but also pointed out the realities of the current situation.

“We currently have been dealt the hand that we’ve been dealt,” Williams said, who also voted to fire Singer. “This is in the judicial branch. And the chief justice is the appointing authority and under the statute people serve at the pleasure of the chief justice.”

Still, many in the larger public defense community, regardless of their support or frustrations with Singer, are troubled by the events the chief justice set into motion this week when she fired the commission and reappointed several new members who heeded her call to remove Singer.

“People are being distracted by this side show and forgetting that we still have hundreds, at least, if not thousands of people, who are without counsel and have been without counsel for months on end, including people in custody,” said Jason Williamson, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law.

Williamson is one of several attorneys who filed a class-action lawsuit in May over Oregon’s failure to provide public defenders to those charged with crimes. He’s concerned that the actions of the chief justice will make it harder to reform Oregon’s public defense system.

“This isn’t news to anyone, including the chief justice, that there is a crisis going on,” Williamson said. “Various state officials have been giving this lip service for a long time and if we had any confidence that it was going to happen, we wouldn’t have filed a lawsuit.”

During a meeting Wednesday, the very first of the new commission, Walters acknowledged the extraordinary events of the past week.

“It’s been challenging, it’s been emotional, I know for me and I know for others as well,” Walters said. “I really never anticipated exercising my statutory authority to remove and reset the commission, but the issues that we face in public defense are so urgent. I couldn’t allow the dysfunction and the distractions to continue.”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories